Recent months have ushered figurative sculpture into a cultural battlefield–literally and figuratively. Many images of Confederate leaders–men who fought the Union Army to preserve a culture and economy of slave labor–are torn down, removed, defaced. Their images were erected in public spaces by local powerbroker who shared, in some measure, racist ideology. Women are notably not subjects of public monuments–implying by their absence that they do not contribute to national life or culture except as models for angels, muses, or civic goddesses–not real people whose lives and accomplishments deserve remembrance.
Monuments to Confederate leaders and semi-fictionalized heroes like Christopher Columbus are lightning rods for rage and despair that can find no other outlet. We kill racists in effigy; we tear them from a public square where their presence was never wanted.
Figurative monuments have again become vitally important as we need to see ourselves anew. Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War, 27 feet high, was created in response to a long-suppressed need to memorialize Black men. The young man of the monument is an anonymous rider symbolic of a new nation and a new army. (The title is from the Bible, Matthew 24: Ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows. Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake…)
Meta Fuller’s 1913 monument to emancipation has quietly existed in a public square in Boston for only a few decades. As a monument, it runs counter to our expectations and so has been almost invisible in the cultural landscape. It is life size, rather than “heroic” (over-life) size. It does not loom over us with rearing hooves. There are no rippling bronze flags, no dramatically waving swords, no hands reaching to the heavens, no grim and purposeful striding. Instead there are three figures: an anonymous Black man and woman who stand quietly, looking quite seriously out at the world, and a weeping woman with a hidden face.
Fuller sculpted Emancipation in clay in 1913, and had it cast in plaster (presumably no organization was able to sponsor the high cost of bronze casting) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The piece was “lost” in storage in Boston and miraculously survived 80 years of neglect. It was finally cast in bronze in 1999 and installed on a pink granite plinth in the South End’s Harriet Tubman Park. Fuller’s entire body of work comprised revolutionary effort: to portray Black Americans proudly and representing a full range of human emotions and capabilities. Emancipation, too, confounds conventions and expectations for both portrayal of Black lives and prevailing conventions of public sculpture. Fuller’s work is thoughtful, un-grandiose, avoiding cliched poses of either bombast or subjugation. The protagonists of her monument engage with the viewer with a serious and steady outward gaze. The drama in the piece is provided by a female figure, face hidden in her arms, and a gnarled tree that seems to wring its chopped and truncated branches. Fuller explains the work: …”Humanity weeping over her suddenly freed children, who, beneath the gnarled fingers of Fate, step forth into he world, unafraid.”
The piece’s anti-monumentality shared little with other heroic public sculpture made in the early decades of the 20th century. Its viewpoint has more in common with a work like Nona Faustine’s 2013 self portrait, From Her Body Sprang Their Greatest Wealth. In this photograph Faustine stood nude on a wooden “auction block” at the site of Wall Street’s colonial slave market. Not gesturing, not using props or attributes except–incongrously and portentiously–a pair of white dress shoes–Faustine’s work is at once a self portrait and a study for the kind of confrontational and thought-provoking monument Fuller made. Silent and serious, unavoidably human, these Black bodies prevent us from turning away.
Thank you to ArtFan70 on Flickr for the photograph.
Meta Fuller in this blog.
Nona Faustine, From Her Body Sprang Their Greatest Wealth (from White Shoes), 2013 (Site of Colonial Slave Market, Wall Street).